Protesters are unhappy with something.
They’re going to set up shop outside your building next Tuesday.
What do you do?
The conventional wisdom screams: Alert building security. Alert the public relations folks. Alert key business people. And, when the protesters show up, ignore them.
The first three items are no-brainers; the last stems from universal experience: If you send somebody downstairs to talk to the protesters, you’ll have created a viral moment. Instead, let a dozen people with signs march around for a while. Let them get tired. They’ll go home. And you’ll have done your job: Minimized the disruption, and kept a small public relations issue from becoming a larger one.
But the protesters are coming, so someone schedules a call.
On the call, you’ll hear all the usual ideas:
“We should hand out pieces of paper that explain our position. That will make the protesters go home.”
But: “The protesters are coming to protest. They’re not coming to go home. If you hand out pieces of paper explaining our position, the protesters will set the pieces of paper on fire, creating a viral moment. Do not hand out pieces of paper.”
“The other tenants in the building will complain. We really must invite the protesters inside.”
But: “The other tenants have no basis to complain. If the protesters are on public property, then they have the right to protest. And bringing protesters inside the building compounds the security problem and escalates the situation.”
“Why don’t we tell the protesters to meet with our lawyers at the lawyers’ office?” Followed by: “The lawyers will never let all the protesters into the lawyers’ office.”
A bunch of pablum. You put your head in your hands; you put the phone on mute; you start to cry. You wait for the others to figure out that the law firm would invite only one, not all, of the protesters into the law firm’s offices. Finally, somebody says something that resembles the truth: “That probably won’t cause the protesters to go away, but it’s better than having them protest outside our offices. Before the protesters arrive, we could extend an invitation for their lawyer to meet with our lawyer at our lawyer’s office. If there’s any negotiating to be done, it could be done there.”
It probably won’t work, because the protesters want to protest; they don’t want to negotiate. But it may be worth a try.
You think to yourself: “The conventional wisdom is occasionally wrong. But often there’s a reason for it. If protesters are going to appear outside your office, let them have at it. If you’re lucky, few people will notice, and eventually the protesters will get bored and go away. At a minimum, your actions won’t have made a bad situation worse.”
You should think about all hard problems anew. But you should consider the possibility that there’s a reason for routine answers to routine questions.
Mark Herrmann spent 17 years as a partner at a leading international law firm and is now deputy general counsel at a large international company. He is the author of The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law and Drug and Device Product Liability Litigation Strategy (affiliate links). You can reach him by email at email@example.com
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